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Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus

What good does it do to say that the words [of the Bible] are inspired by God if most people have absolutely no access to these words, but only to more or less clumsy renderings of these words into a language? . . . How does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we don't have the words that God inerrantly inspired? . . . We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals. So contends Bart D. Ehrman in his bestselling Misquoting Jesus. If altogether true, we have little reason to put our confidence in Scripture. Add to this Ehrman's contention that what we read in the New Testament represents the winners' version of events, twisted to suit their own purposes and not at all a faithful recounting of what really happened, and the case for skepticism and unbelief gives every appearance of being on solid footing. But are things really so bad off? Were the New Testament documents widely distorted by copyists? Can we in fact have no idea what was in the originals? Do we have no hope of knowing what eyewitnesses said and thought? Are other documents left out of the New Testament better sources for understanding early Christianity? While readily conceding that Ehrman has many of his facts straight, pastor and researcher Timothy Paul Jones argues that Ehrman is far too quick to jump to false and unnecessary conclusions. In clear, straightforward prose, Jones explores and explains the ins and outs of copying the New Testament, why lost Christianities were lost, and why the Christian message still rings true today.
Year:
2007
Edition:
annotated edition
Publisher:
InterVarsity Press
Language:
english
Pages:
178
ISBN 10:
0830834478
ISBN 13:
9780830834471
File:
PDF, 10.59 MB

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"Among many antifaith books you may hnd Bart Ehhiians-.MisqU:otingjesus: The

Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. This is a broadside attack upon the
Scriptures, and Christians need to be able to rebut it. Thankfully, Dr. Timothy
Paul jones has written Misquoting Truth, a scholarly and gracious (but firm) re­
buttal to Dr. Ehrman."
D. jAMES KENNEDY, P H . D., SENIOR M INISTER, C ORAL RIDGE P RESBYTERIAN C HURCH

"In Misquoting Truth, Timothy Paul jones gives Bart Ehrman's Misquoting jesus
and Lost Christianities the debunking they deserve. jones exposes the bias and
faulty logic that surface time and again in these highly publicized books. Mis­

quoting Truth provides a much needed antidote and will serve students and
Christian leaders very welL I recommend this book enthusiastically."
CRAIG A. EVANS, PAYZANT DISTINGUISHED P ROFESSOR OF NEW TESTAMENT, AC AD I A

D IVINITY C OLLEGE, AND AUTHOR OF fABRICATING jESUS: How MODERN SCHOLARS

DISTORT THE GOSPELS

"Timothy Paul jones's writings are always engaging, compelling and often hu­
morous. He captivates me with everything he writes. When I read his writing, I
have many 'Aha!' or 'I wish I'd thought of that' moments. This isn't the first great
book that Timothy's written, and it won't be the last. Make certain you don't
miss it!"
jAMES L. GARLOW, P H . D., COAUTHOR OF THE BESTSELLING THEDA VINCI CODEBREAKER
AND CRACKING

DA VINCI'S CODE

"Dr. jones reminds us that Christians should never be afraid of open debate.
With tradition, experience, reason and Scripture as our final measure we can put
all ideas on the table with confidence that in the end we will embrace what is
true and discard what is false."
EVERETT PIPER, P H . D . , P RESIDENT, OKLAHOMA WESLEYAN U NIVERSITY

'Jones clearly refutes in a Christlike manner the claims of Misquoting jesus. A
must-read for those who love to give an answer for the faith!"
LIEF MO l , MARS H ILL CHURCH CAM PUS PASTOR,

SEATTLE, WASHIN GTON

"The most radical win; g of New Testament scholarship has gotten a disproportion­
ate amount of press in recent years. As representative as any of this trend today is
Bart Ehrman, whose books on textual criticism and noncanonical Gospels make
it sound as if we have little idea what the New Testament authors originally wrote
or little reason to believe that theirs was an accurate, and certainly the oldest, ren­
dition of the life of jesus and the gospel message. Timothy jones sets the record
straight in this courteous but direct critique of charges about misquotingjesus and
alternate or lost Christianities. Abreast of all the latest and best scholarship, he
nevertheless writes in a straightforward, easy-to-read style that any thoughtful lay­
person can handle. An absolute must-read for anyone confused or taken in by the
revisionist biblical historians of our day."
CRAIG l. BLOMBERG, D ISTINGUISHED PROFESSOR OF NEW TESTAMENT,
DENVER SEMINARY

"Dr. jones has written a first-rate book on an essential and timely subject. Both
specialists and nonspecialists will benefit from his honest, polite and clearly ex­
plained treatment of issues concerning the reliability of the New Testament text
and its authorship. In a day of confusion among non-Christians and Christians
alike, this is a must-read."
PETER jONES, SCHOLAR-IN-RESIDENCE, WESTMINSTER SEMINARY CALIFORNIA, AND
AUTHOR OF

STOLEN IDENTITY: THE CONSPIRACY TO REINVENT jESUS

"In Misquoting Truth, Timothy Paul jones has written an informative, creative

book that needs to be read by all serious, thinking Christians. It is as informative
as it is entertaining, and it will provide a secure foundation for continuing to
trust in the accuracy of God's Word. It answers the basic criticisms leveled at the
New Testament by Dr. Bart Ehrman, while at the same time providing a proper
understanding of the basics of textual criticism. jones does not skirt the difficult
issues, but deals with them head-on, providing careful and balanced answers. I
highly recommend this book to those seeking to find answers to the question,
'Can the Word of God be trusted?'"
PAUL 0. WEGNER, P ROFESSOR OF OLD TESTAMENT, PHOENIX SEMINARY

"Timothy Paul Jones turns the tables on Bart Ehrman's overstated Misquoting

jesus. He applies to Ehrman the same probing logic that Ehrman claims to apply
to the New Testament evidence. The evidence turns out to be more believable
than Ehrmans strained interpretations of it. It is not the New Testament writers
or copyists who depart from history,] ones shows , but a few scholars who invest
too much faith in their skepticism. Jones not only checks that skepticism: along
the way he equips readers to make their own informed choices about author­
ship, scribal transmission, and church selection (or rejection) of key New Tes­
tament passages and documents--and many writings from outside the New
Testament as well. This is a valuable primer for orientation in a discussion that
cannot be ignored."
ROBERT YARBROUGH,

A S S OCIATE PROFESSOR OF

NEW TESTAMENT AND NEW

T ES TAMENT DEPARTMENT C HA I R, T RIN ITY EVANGELICAL D IVIN ITY SCHOOL

"It is an unfortunate thing when a scholar uses a technical discipline such as tex­
tual criticism to browbeat an unsuspecting public. Timothy Jones's evenhanded
approach challenges the overblown claims of Ehrman's sensationalized account
of the textual history of the New Testament. Jones agrees with Ehrman at many
basic points, but repeatedly challenges his conclusion that the New Testament
is untrustworthy, effectively countering each of Ehrman's revisionist claims. In a
most readable treatment Jones presents anew the case for the trustworthiness of
the New Testament.
"There was a time when E E Bruces little book on the reliability of the New
Testament documents was enough. Now new challenges to the integrity of the
New Testament have arisen. Timothy Jones rises to meet these new challenges by
combining this refutation of Bart Ehrmans book Misquoting]esus with a thorough
primer on New Testament textual criticism. Both authors work with the same ev­
idence and share a good deal of common ground, but they arrive at surprisingly
different conclusions. In the process of challenging the conclusions of Bart Ehr­
man's popular book,]ones investigates several alleged 'significant changes' in the
text and finds that none of them requires readers to rethink an essential belief
about Jesus or to doubt the historical integrity of the New Testament.
"This book is classic apologetics yet without any hint of rancor. Jones writes

in a readable conversational style, combining pastoral concern with excellent
activities for beginning students as well as entertaining anecdotes and illustra­
tions. T he book is autobiographical to a high degree, which increases its per­
sonal appeal.
"Written with troubled believers in mind, Jones begins by borrowing a gen­
erous definition of inerrancy-inerrancy means simply that the Bible tells the
truth-a definition which, he says, gives plenty of room for the many extant tex­
tual variants. In the end, Timothy Jones suggests that Ehrman lost his faith not
because he 'peered so deeply into the origins of Christian faith,' but because he
gained his understanding of Christian faith in a fundamentalist evangelical con­
text that allowed little (if any) space for questions, variations or rough edges.
Jones does not shy away from these 'rough edges,' but he presents a compelling
case that the New Testament text as we have it is a reliable witness to the teach­
ings of Jesus and of the first Christians."
T. SCOTT CAULLEY, D.T HEOL., D IRECTOR OF THE I NSTITUTE FOR THE STUDY OF
C HRISTIAN O RIGINS, UNIVERSITY OF TOBINGEN, TOBINGEN, GERMANY

"In recent years, Christians have been assailed by a book genre that is increas­
ingly critical of Christian beliefs. Misquoting Truth reminds us that this critical
alarm is often sounded in bombastic ways that seldom present the whole pic­
ture. Timothy Jones explains why there is no new information in Ban Ehrman's

Misquoting]esus that threatens what Christians believe about the New Testament
text. Further, he moves the discussion to a shelf where it is accessible to every­
one. Numerous practical teaching pointers help the reader to digest the mate­
rial. T he result is a well-integrated volume that accomplishes what few books
do: disarming the critics while at the same time connecting with a large range of
readers.

Bravo, InterVarsity, for publishing yet another excellent volume that

communicates crucial truth to this generation!"
GARY R. HABERMAS, DISTINGUISHED RESEARCH PROFESSOR AND C HAIR, DEPARTMENT
OF P HILOSOPHY AND T HEOLOGY, LiBERTY U NIVERSITY; AUTHOR OF THE CASE FOR THE

RESURRECTION OF jESUS

A Guide to the Fallacies of
Bart Ehrman's

Misquoting Jesus

TIMOTHY PAUL JONES

An online study guide for this book is available at
www.tvpress.com

�
/'"'IIi;!

IVP Books
An Imprint of lnterVarslty Press
Downers Grove, Illinois

lnterVarsity Press
P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove,IL 60515-1426
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©2007 by Timothy Paul jones

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from lnterVarsity
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Rd., P.O.

Box 7895,

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from the Christian Scriptures are translated by the author from Eberhard
Nestle et al.,

Novum Testamentum Graece, 27th ed.

(Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1999).

Version of
the Bible, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in
Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures are from the New Revised Standard

the USA. Used

by permission.

All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Greek and Latin texts are translated

by the author from primary source

materials.
This book is published in association with the Nappaland Literary Agency, an independent agency dedicated to
publishing works that are: Authentic. Relevant. Eternal. Visit us on the web at http://www.Nappaland.com.
The map of Paul� third missionary journey in chapter five is used under license from Rose Publishing <WWW. rose­
publishing.com>. The Sch0)1en Collection photographs are the property of Martin Scheyen and used

by permission of

EliZabeth Gano Scheyen,librarian for the Sch"Jen Collection, Oslo and London <WWW.nb.nolbserlschoyen>.
CSNTM photographs are used by permission of Daniel Wallace, executive director of CSNTM <www.csntm.org>
Design:

Cindy Kiple

Images:

Bible page: Mike Bentleylistochphoto
jesus choosing apostles: North Wind Picture Archives}

ISBN 978-0-8308-3447-1
Printed in the United States of America oo

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
jones, Timothy P. (Timothy Paul)
Misquoting truth: a guide to the fallacies of Bart Ehrman�
misquoting jesus/Timothy Paul jones.
p. em.
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN 978-0-8308-3447-1 (pbh.: alh. paper)
1. Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting jesus. 2. Bible. N. I.-Criticism,

Textual. 3. Bible. N. I.-Criticism, Textual-History. 4. Bible.
N. I.-Manuscripts. I. Title.
BS2325.]66 2007
225. 4'86---dc22
2007015588

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To my teachers .. .
My sister Shyre, my parents and Shirley Brown
told me that reading opens doors
into worlds of wonder.
And so I made my way through those doors.
Nancy Swihart told a frightened college freshman
that he didn't have to settle
for walking through doors fashioned by others.
"You're a writer," she said, and I believed her.
I

Scott Caulley and F. Alan Tomlinson
led me into wild and wonderful lands
of ancient peoples whose voices still echo
in fragments of papyrus and pottery and stone.
Mark E. Simpson, Robert W Pazmiito and Dennis E. Williams
taught me that this knowledge does not matter
unless I share it in ways that transform
the lives of ordinary people.
So here I am
because of who each of you has been
in my life.

CONTENTS

Introduction: A New Breed of Biblical Scholar? . . .

ll

PART ONE: WHY THE TEXTS CAN BE TRUSTED .

27

l Truth About "The Originals That Matter" .

29

2 Truth About the Copyists .

39

.

.

.

.

. .

.

.

3 Truth About "Significant Changes" in the New Testament
4 Truth About "Misquoting jesus"
PART TWO: WHY THE LOST CHRISTIANITIES WERE LOST.

.

51
67
79

5 Truth About Oral History . . . . . . . .

83

6 Truth About the Authors of the Gospels

95

7 Truth About Eyewitness Testimony . . .

107

8 Truth About How the Books Were Chosen.

121

Concluding Reflections: "It Fits the Lock". . . . .

138

Appendix: How Valuable Is the Testimony of Papias?.

147

Acknowledgments

149

.

About the Author

151

Notes .

. . .

153

Subject Index.

170

Name Index

174

.

.

Scripture Index .

176

INTROD UCTION
A New Breed of Biblical Scholar?

What good does it do to say that the words are inspired
by God if most people have absolutely no access to
these words, but only to more or less clumsy renderings
of these words into a language? ... How does it help us
to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in
fact we don't have the words that God inerrantly in­
spired? .. . We have only error-ridden copies, and the
vast majority of these are centuries removed from the
originals.
DR. BART EHRMAN

A new breed of biblical scholar" 1-that's how The Dallas Morning
News described Bart D. Ehrman, chair of the Department of Religious
Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of

Misquoting]esus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. In
part, the newspaper got it right. Ehrman is a respected biblical
scholar and a sharp-witted communicator. He excels at making com­
plicated concepts understandable to ordinary people . His books and
lectures have moved fields of study such as New Testament textual
criticism out of a few obscure seminars for graduate students and

l2

M I S Q U O T IN G

T R U TH

onto the shelves of mainstream booksellers.
Ehrman:S most popular books have been featured on programs
ranging from the Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio to jon
Stewart's The Daily Show on Comedy Central. After jon Stewart de­
scribed Misquoting jesus as "a helluva book," this treatise on textual
criticism shot to the number-one slot on Amazon. com. A Washington

Post correspondent dubbed Misquoting jesus "one of the unlikeliest
bestsellers" of 2006. 2 And indeed it was.
So what's the problem?
Despite the description of Bart Ehrman as "a new breed of biblical
scholar," most of what Ehrman has to say isn't new at all. The con­
cepts in his books have been current among scholars for decades.
What Ehrman and his editors have done is rework these scholarly
conclusions for mass consumption, simplifying the concepts and
sensationalizing the titles.
Even this would be no cause for concern if it weren't for how Ehr­
man presents these conclusions and, in some cases, what he adds to
them. According to Ehrman, the New Testament Gospels were not
written by Matthew, Mark, Luke or john. As a result-at least from
Ehrmans perspective-it's unlikely that any of these documents rep­
resents eyewitness testimony about jesus. What's more, Ehrman im­
plies, the available copies of the New Testament manuscripts are so
riddled with errors that it may be impossible to know precisely what
the authors said in the first place .
WHY THIS BOOK?
I first ran across Bart Ehrman's books while writing portions of An­

swers to "The Da Vinci Code" and The Da Vinci Codebreaker, two re­
sponses to Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown's attacks
on the historical accuracy of the New Testament were riddled with

Introduction

l3

obvious--even laughable-historical blunders. Ehrman's arguments
fell into a completely different category; each argument from Ehrman
was intelligent, well-crafted and thoroughly believable. For each
hour I spent reading one of Ehrman's books, I spent two hours find­
ing the specific, subtle points at which his assertions fell short.
A few weeks after I finished my portion of The Da Vinci Codebreaker,
Ehrman's book Misquoting jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bi­

ble and Why soared onto the New York Times bestseller list, with sales
surpassing 100,000 copies. At this point, it occurred to me that most
of these 100,000 readers were probably not biblical scholars. If it had
required so much effort for me-with a firm grasp of biblical lan­
guages and degrees in New Testament, church history and spiritual
formation-to glimpse the errors in Ehrman's writings, his books
could quite easily convince hundreds of thousands of others that the
New Testaments testimony about jesus Christ is unreliable.
Here's how Bart Ehrman's bestsellers Misquoting jesus and Lost

Christianities describe the New Testament documents:
Not only do we not have the originals [of the Greek manu­
scripts of the New Testament] , we don't have the first copies of
the originals . .. . What we have are copies made later-much
later. . . . These copies differ from one another in so many places
that we don't even know how many differences there are. Pos­
sibly it is easiest to put it in comparative terms: there are more
differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the
New Testament. .. . We have only error-ridden copies, and the
vast maj onty of these are centuries removed from the originals
and different from them . . . in thousands of ways. 3
If one wants to insist that God inspired the very words of
scripture , what would be the point if we don't have the very

14

M I S Q U O TI N G

T R U TH

words of scripture? In some places , . . . we simply cannot be
sure that we have reconstructed the text accurately. It's a bit
hard to know what the words of the Bible mean if we don't even
know what the words are . . . . It would have been no more dif­
ficult for God to preserve the words of scripture than it would
have been for him to inspire them in the first place .. . . The fact
that we don't have the words surely must show, I reasoned, that
he did not preserve them for us. And if he didn't perform that
miracle, there seemed to be no reason to think that he per­
formed the earlier miracle of inspiring those words. 4
The Gospels that came to be included in the New Testament
were all written anonymously; only at a later time were they
called by the names of their reputed authors , Matthew, Mark,
Luke , and John . . . . None of them contains a first-person nar­
rative ("One day, when Jesus and I went into Capernaum ... "),
or claims to be written by an eyewitness or companion of an
eyewitness. 5
If I accept Ehrman's reconstruction of the historical record, ( 1) the
original manuscripts of the New Testament no longer exist, (2) the
available copies of the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament vary
in so many places that, in some cases, it is impossible to reconstruct
the original wording, and (3) the New Testament Gospels didn't
come from Matthew, Mark, Luke or John-they were written anony­
mously, without the benefit of eyewitness testimony, and the authors'
names were ascribed later.
At first glance , Ehrman's facts seem accurate. It's true that the orig­
inal manuscripts of the New Testament most likely disintegrated into
dust long ago and that no two surviving copies are identical. And
there are more differences between the manuscripts than there are

15

I n trodu c t i o n

words in the Greek New Testament. Less certain is whether the Gos­
pels were originally anonymous documents-and, yet, Ehrman is in-

K N OW M O R E

The New Testament was originally written in the Greek language; the
Old Testament was preserved primarily in Hebrew, with some por­
tions written in a related language known as Aramaic.

deed correct when he points out that the earliest fragments of the
Gospels never mention Matthew, Mark, Luke or john as the authors.
None of this presents a problem for persons who view the Bible,
in the words of Bart Ehrman , as "a human book from beginning to
end."6 But, if someone happens to embrace the Bible as something

more than a human book, Ehrman's conclusions create serious dif­
ficulties. Simply put , if Ehrman's conclusions about the biblical
text are correct, there is little (if any) reason to believe that my
copy of the New Testament accurately describes anything that
jesus said or did.
I have nothing against Bart Ehrman. In fact , I appreciate the way
he challenges ordinary people to ask difficult questions about their
faith. If my path intersects with Ehrman's path at some point, one
of the first sentences to pass through my lips will probably be,

Thank you, Bart Ehrman-thanh you for showing people that these is­
su es really do matter.
At the same time , I disagree strongly with many of Ehrman's con­
clusions . I believe that the content of Scripture is fully human and
fully divine. I'm convinced that my copy of the New Testament does
accurately describe what jesus said and did . And I believe that such

16

M I SQ U O T I N G

T R UTH

convictions can be rooted not only in my personal faith but also in
the testimony of history.
Why do I possess such a passion for helping people to understand
why the New Testament writings are reliable? Truth be told, this pas­
sion began long before Ehrman wrote his first bestseller. It arose even
before my status as an evangelical pastor and author created a vested
interest in the accuracy of the New Testament documents . This pas­
sion was born on a castoff couch in the library of a small Kansas col­
lege where a seventeen-year-old student sat staring out a darkened
window, searching for some semblance of truth.

FAC T S H EET

Bart D . Ehrman
•

Chair of the Department of Religious Studies and James A. Grey Distinguished Professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

•

Ph.D., magna cum laude, Princeton Theological Seminary (1985)

•

M.Div., Princeton Theological Seminary (1981)

•

B.A., magna cum laude, Wheaton College (1978)

•

•

Diploma, Moody Bible Institute ( 1976)
Author of

The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture
Lost Scriptures
Lost Christianities
Truth and Fiction in "The Da Vinci Code"
Misquoting Jesus
Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene

17

Introduction

HOW TRUTH FOUND ME
A few fluorescent lights still flickered in the comers of the library,

nearly hidden behind towering bookshelves. Other than those four
glowing fixtures, the main room of the library was utterly dark. The
head librarian had told workers to leave these bulbs illuminated,
vainly anticipating that some hapless college student might creep

L OOK IT UP
autograph In the academic field of textual criticism, the first or ori�i­

nal manuscript of a document.

into the stacks after hours to steal a book. From my perspective, this
scenario didn't seem particularly likely: Until examination week,
most of my fellow students would remain blissfully ignorant of the
librarys existence. Besides , the library's list of missing items con­
firmed that most students saw no need to wait until the lights were
turned off to filch their favorite books.
After locking the lobby doors, I sank into a well-worn couch, a
castoff from some inexplicable moment in the 1970s when the words

stylish and avocado green could appear together without triggering
peals of laughter. An uneven stack of books on the table in front of
me tossed oblong shadows across a tiled floor. The pile included
tomes about the myths of dying deities, textual criticism and the
canon of Scripture, rabbinic judaism, and the history of atheism.
During the preceding month, while working the lonely five-hour
shift before the library closed each evening, I had struggled through
nearly all of these books. With each page, I seemed to choke on ever­
deepening doubts about my faith.

18

M I SQUOTING

TRUTH

Seven weeks into my first semester of Bible college, I whispered as I
stared at the haphazard stack of books, and I don't know if I even believe
the Bible anymore. Unable to bear the frustration any longer, I pressed
my face against my fists and wept.
It wasn't as if my professors were attacking the Bible; they weren't.
But, with each lecture and reading, my assumptions about the Scrip­
tures-assumptions that I had held since childhood-had crumbled
into hopeless fragments.
When I took my seat on the first day of New Testament Survey, I
had thought that the Greek and Hebrew texts employed by the trans­
lators of the King james Version had been preserved perfectly from
the time of the apostles until today. As far as I knew, all the most fa-

LOOK IT UP
textual criticism The study of various copies of a manuscript with

the goal of determining the wording of the autograph.

miliar elements of Christian faith-a dying deity, the resurrection,
baptism, the Lord's Supper-were unique to Christianity. Until that
moment, I may not always have lived my beliefs, but I had never
doubted them.
Now, I knew that the ancient world was filled with stories of sac­
ramental meals and ceremonial washings , dying deities and resur­
rected redeemers. Long before jesus tumbled into a feed trough in
some obscure corner of the Roman Empire , the Persians seemed to
have venerated Mithras , a virgin-born deity whose birth was cele­
brated by shepherds and wise men. And there were Egyptian di­
vinities, worshiped thousands of years before jesus, who were be-

Introduction

19

lieved to have died and risen from the dead-Osiris and Adonis,
Attis and Horus.
Then, I learned in another class that the original manuscripts of
the New Testament had disintegrated into dust more than a thou­
sand years ago and that no two remaining copies of these docu­
me nts were identical . What's more, the translators commissioned
by King james had relied on a Greek New Testament that most
scholars now recognized as inadequate-a Greek New Testament
that included at least one passage that a Franciscan friar may have
forged for political reasons.
Nothing had prepared me for these revelations-and I knew that
no one in my church or at home was prepared to deal with such
doubts either. If I dared to voice these questions, my words would
merely confirm their suspicion that academic study leads inevitably
to disbelief.
Now, in my first semester of college, I could no longer blindly em­
brace the Bible as divine truth. I needed to know why and how. Why
did so many elements of Christian faith seem to be borrowed from
other religions? Why were there so many differences between manu­
scripts of the New Testament? How did scholars know that some
Greek manuscripts were more reliable than others? And, if no one
had possessed a perfect copy of the Greek New Testament for nearly
two millennia, how could my New Testament possibly tell me the
truth about God?
My professors would probably have been glad to help me , but I
was too timid to admit my doubts to them. And, so, I began to read­
not casually flipping through an occasional interesting text, but ob­
sessively consuming book after book during my late-night shifts as
student assistant in the library. By the time I found myself sinking
into the couch and crying out in the shadows of so many conflicting

20

M I SQ U O T I N G

T R UTH

opinions, I had devoured dozens of volumes from every conceivable
perspective-and, still, I didn't know what to believe .

So I did the only thing I knew to do .
I kept at it.
I kept reading everything I could find, searching for some distant
glistening of truth. And finally, near the end of my second semester
of college, the clouds of doubt began to clear-not all of them and
not all at once . But, bit by bit, faith reemerged .
It wasn't the same sort of faith that I had possessed when the se­
mester began. In truth, my faith had grown in the darkness. Now, it

T H IN K I T O U T

"In the New Testament, the thing really happens. The Dying God re­
ally appears-as a historical Person, living in a definite place and
time. ... The old myth of the Dying God .. . comes down from the
heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It hap­

pen s

-

at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by defm­

able historical consequences. We must not be nervous about 'paral­
lels' [in other religions] ... :they ought to be there-it would be a
stumbling block if they weren't."7

C. S. Lewis

was far deeper, far richer and far better equipped to understand what
it means to embrace the Bible as Gods Word. After seven months of
seeking truth, truth finally found me .
Through the writings of C. S. Lewis, I saw that the presence of
some elements of Christian faith in other religions doesn't mean that
Christianity is false. To the contrary, it means that there is, in every

21

Introduction

system o f faith and every human heart, a yearning-however
vague-for one true God who enters into death and triumphs over

K N OW M O R E

The King James Version of the Bible was translated from a sixteenth­
century version of the Greek New Testament known as Textus Recep·

tus. The editor of Textus Receptus, Erasmus of Rotterdam, used the
best Greek texts available to him.Older manuscripts of the New Tes­
tament have been discovered since that time.

it. What's more, this God may sometimes use fragments of truth in
other relitions to reveal his glory to the fullest breadth of humanity
F. F.

Bruce's The Canon of Scripture and The New Testament Docu­

ments: Are They Reliable? convinced me that the authors of the Gos­
pels weren't recording mere myths or legends . They were intention­
ally writing historical documents. The authors' purposes, to be sure,
were theological, but their theology was rooted in real events that had
happened in the context of human history
From the works of Bruce Metzger, especially The Canon of the New
Testament and The Text of the New Testament, I learned how-despite
the hundreds of thousands of variants in the Greek New Testament­
it's almost always possible to determine the original reading of the
text. What's more, I learned that none of these points of textual un­
certainty undermines any crucial element of Christian faith.
And, still, I clearly recall the aching emptiness that knotted my
stomach during those months of doubt. I remember the frustration I
felt when I realized that the answers I heard in church simply weren't
enough. Most of all, I will never forget the joy that surged in my soul

MISQUOTING TRUTH

22

as a pattern of thought­
ful trust replaced the
blind faith that I had
embraced for far too
long.
Thats why I'm pas­
sionate about what I've
written in this book­
because

I know that

blind faith isn't enough .
I remember the j oy of
moving
faith

from
to

blind

thoughtful

trust, and I want you to
experience that j oy too .
In 1515 the Renaissance scholar Erasmus pulled to­
gether the best New Testament manuscripts that were
available to him. The next year the first published
Greek New Testament became available. The original

Novum instrumentum Omne, but the text be­
Textus Receptus ("the Received
Text") when an editor declared in 1633, "Textum ergo
habes, nunc ab omnibus receptum" ("The text, therefore,
title was

came known as the

[this reader] possesses which all now receive").

A DEAD END?
As I studied Ehrman's
writings, what I found
most

intriguing

was

that he once faced a
crisis of faith similar to

my own-but the results of Ehrman's crisis were radically different.
During his sophomore year of high school in Lawrence , Kansas, Ehr­
man had, in his words, "a bona fide born-again experience . " 8 Fasci­
nated with Scripture, the burgeoning scholar earned a diploma in
biblical studies at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago before beginning
his undergraduate degree at Wheaton College .
At first, Ehrman accepted the view of Scripture that he learned at
Moody Bible Institute: the Bible was "inspired completely and in its

Int r o d u c tion

23

very words-verbal, plenary inspiration. " 9 By the time he entered the
master of divinity program at Princeton Theological Seminary, Ehr­
man was struggling with this understanding of the Bible. He had run
across many of the same facts that had triggered such deep doubts in
my own soul-the nonexistence of the original manuscripts, differ­
ences between early copies of the New Testament and the trouble­
some difficulty of reconciling certain passages of Scripture.
During his second semester at Princeton, Ehrman wrote a paper in
which he attempted to reconcile an apparent historical blunder in
Mark 2:26. In this passage, jesus refers to an event that occurred in
the time of "the high priest Abiathar," when in fact the event hap­
pened-at least according to 1 Samuel 2 1 : 1 -6-during the high
priesthood of Abiathar� father, Ahimelech. Still holding to his belief
in the historical truth of Scripture, Ehrman intended to show that
this was not a historical error after all. A professor's comment,
scrawled on the final page of his research paper, transformed the di­
rection of Ehrman's life.
At the end of my paper, [the professor] wrote a simple one-line
comment that for some reason went straight through me. He
wrote: "Maybe Mark just made a mistake. " I started thinking
about it, considering all the work I had put into the paper, re­
alizing that I had had to do some pretty fancy exegetical foot­
work to get around the problem, and that my solution was in
fact a bit of a stretch. I finally concluded, "Hmm . . . maybe
Mark did make a mistake. "
Once I made that admission, the floodgates opened. For if
there could be _one little, picayune mistake in Mark 2 , maybe
there could be mistakes in other places as well . . . . This kind of
realization coincided with the problems I was encountering the

24

M I S Q U O T I N G TR U T H

more closely I studied the surviving Greek manuscripts of the

New Testament. 10

A few years later, Ehrman was teaching a class at Rutgers Univer­
sity entitled 'The Problem of Suffering in the Biblical Tradition. " Dur­
ing this time, the remnants of his faith slipped away. Faith had be­
come, in Ehrman's estimation, "a dead end."n Today, the former
evangelical describes himself as "a happy agnostic. " In a recent inter-

TH INK IT OUT
So do the words of Jesus in Mark 2:26 contradict

1 Samuel 21:1-6?

Here's one possible alternative: Mark's reference to "high priest"
indicates the position that Abiathar eventually obtained. Abiathar
was present in the tabernacle during the incident described in
1

Samuel 21 (see 1 Samuel 22:20), but he didn't become high priest

until later.12

view, Ehrman commented that, when someone dies, that person sim­
ply ceases to exist, "like the mosquito you swatted yesterday. "13
It's not my place to j udge whether Bart Ehrman is actually "happy"
in his agnosticism, as he claims. And God alone knows why the same
sort of crisis that deepened my faith in the truth of Scripture de­
stroyed Ehrman's belief in the Bible's inerrancy. What his story reveals
to me, though, is that tough questions about the biblical text can nei­
ther be swept under the church rug nor confined to colleges and
seminaries.
Uncertainties about who wrote the Bible and why, questions about
differences between texts and manuscripts, doubts about the books

25

I n tro d u c tion

LOOK IT UP
agnostic (from Greek, a ["not"] + ginosko ["to know"]) An individ­

ual who believes that it is not possible to know whether God is real.

that made it into the Bible and the ones that didn't-these are not is­
sues for pastors and professors alone. These issues matter for every­
one. They especially matter if you happen to view the Bible as some­

thing more than a fallible record of human myths and religious
experiences.
With this in mind, let's take a close look at the tough issues that
Ehrman has raised. Let's sift through the historical evidence and do
our best to decide if, perhaps, there:S more to Christian faith than "a
dead end" after all.

p

T

WHY T HE TEXTS CAN
BE TRUSTED

The New Testament texts have changed over the centuries-that
much is certain. If you have a difficult time understanding how texts
changed, try this: Gather a dozen or so people together, and give each
person a piece of paper and a writing utensil. Then, ask the group to
copy exactly what you say as you say it.
Slowly read aloud a chapter or so from a Scripture that isn't par­
ticularly familiar-and don't stop , no matter what! Afterward, collect
the papers; after the group leaves, copy a paper of your own from a
totally different biblical text than the one you originally read. Then,
crumple all the copies and randomly rip small holes in them, discard­
ing the smallest bits of paper. Mix the wadded pieces of paper in a

box with some dry sand. (If you have a housecat and you want the
results of this experiment to get really interesting, leave the box on
the floor of your living room for a few days and see what happens.)

A week or two later, regather the same group of people. Give them
the box and ask them-without using their Bibles-to reconstruct
the original text. After they've created their reconstruction, read the
text from your Bible and see how close the reconstruction runs to the
original text.

MISQUOTING TRUTH

28

I've engaged in this experiment many times, and the

most accurate

reconstruction that any class has accomplished-it was a group of
middle-schoolers, by the way-has been only 70

percent

correct.

Barely a C-minus, if I gave grades for the project! In other words, in
a highly literate culture, with easily
accessible writing materials, electri­
cal lights and eyeglasses, the results
were still 30

percent wrong.

Now, consider the same experi­
ment in a culture where your writing
materials are rough pieces of papy­
rus, quills and ink that's a mixture of
charcoal, water and ground gum.
Remove all eyeglasses and contact
lenses. T hen, replace your lamps
with candles.
Inkwell from first century A.D. in
which a copyist would have made
ink by crushing bits of charcoal in a
mixture of water and ground gum.
(Photograph of MS 1655/2 courtesy
of T he Scheyen Collection, Oslo and
London.)

T hat's how the New Testament
was copied.
How, then, can the New Testament
manuscripts

possibly

be

accurate?

How can anyone still trust that the
words in the New Testament repre­

sent what the original authors had to say? Have centuries of copying
caused the original texts to be twisted until jesus and the apostles
wouldn't even recognize the words that are attributed to them?
Personally, I think the New Testament texts

can

still be trusted.

Whether you think I'm right or wrong, will you walk alongside me
through the next four chapters? Look with me at some tough ques­
tions about the texts. Let's wrestle with the truths that we encounter,
and let's see where these truths take us!

1

T RU T H ABOUT
"T H E ORIGI NALS T HAT MATTER"

We have only error-ridden copies [of the New Testa­
ment], and the vast majority of these are centuries re­
moved from the originals and different from them . . .
in thousands of ways.
BART D. EHRMAN

I slumped in an unpadded pew, half-listening to the morning Bible
study. I wasn't particularly interested in what the Bible teacher in this
small Christian high school had to say. But, when the teacher com­
mented that the Gospels always reported word for word what jesus
said, I perked up and lifted my hand. This statement brought up a
question that had perplexed me for a while.
"But, sometimes," I mused, "the words of]esus in one Gospel don't
match the words of the same story in the other Gospels-not exactly,
anyway. So , how can you say that the Gospei-writers always wrote
what jesus said word for word?"
The teacher stared at me, stone silent.
I thought maybe he hadn't understood my question, so I pointed
out an example that I'd noticed-the healing of a "man sick of the

30

M I S Q U O T I N G

T R U TH

palsy" in Simon Peter's house, as I recall (Matthew 9:4-6; Mark 2:811; Luke 5: 2 2-24 KJV).
Still silence.
Finally; the flustered teacher reprimanded me for thinking too
much about the Bible . (In retrospect, this statement was more than a
little ironic: A Bible teacher in a Bible class at a Bible Baptist school ac­
cused me of thinking too much about the Bible!) What I was doing,

L O O K IT UP
inerrancy (from latin, in ["not"]+ errancy ["in a state of error"]) "The

inerrancy of the Bible means simply that the Bible tells the truth.
Truth can and does include approximations, free quotations, lan­
guage of appearances, and different accounts of the same event as
long as those do not contradict."1

he claimed, was similar to what happened in the Garden of Eden,
when the serpent asked Eve if God had actually commanded them
not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.
I didn't quite catch the connection between my question and the
Tree of Knowledge-but I never listened to what that teacher said
about the Bible again. I knew that something was wrong with what he
was telling me. Still, it took me several years to figure out the truth
about this dilemma-a truth which, just as I suspected, had every­
thing to do with the teacher's faulty assumptions about the Bible and
nothing to do with Eve or the serpent.
Here's what my Bible teacher assumed: if the Bible is divinely in­
spired, the Bible must always state the truth word for word, with no vari­
ations. To question this understanding of the Bible was, from this

T r u t h A b o u t " T h e O r igi n a l s T h a t M a t t e r "

31

teachers perspective, to doubt the divine inspiration of Scripture.
WE HAVE ONLY ERROR-RIDDEN COPIES
Oddly enough, when it comes to differences between biblical manu­
scripts, Ehrman seems to follow a similar line of reasoning. The cru­
cial difference, of course, is that he is far too intelligent simply to
deny that there are variations between the documents. He is fully
aware of differences not only between different accounts of the same
events but also between the thousands of New Testament manu­
scripts. Because these variations between biblical manuscripts do un­
deniably exist, the New Testament cannot be-in Ehrman's estima­
tion-the inerrant Word of God.
How does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of
God if in fact we don't have the words that God inerrantly in­
spired, but only the words copied by the scribes-sometimes
correctly but sometimes (many times!) incorrectly?2
Ehrman is correct that the original New Testament writings disin­
tegrated into dust long ago . He's also correct that the copies of the
New Testament documents differ from one another in thousands of
instances . Where Ehrman errs is in his assumption that these manu­
script differences somehow demonstrate that the New Testament
does not represent God's inerrant Word. The problem with this line
of reasoning is that the inspired truth of Scripture does not depend on

word-for-word agreement among all biblical manuscripts or between par­
allel accounts of the same event.
In the first place, the notion of word-for-word agreement is a rel­
atively recent historical development. "In times of antiquity it was not
the practice to give a verbatim repetition every time something was
written out. "3 To be sure, I don't believe that one passage of Scripture

32

M ISQ U O T I N G

T R U TH

L O O K IT UP
codex, codices (from latin word meaning "block") Stacks of vellum

or papyrus, folded and bound for the purpose of creating a book.
papyrus, papyri (from Greek papyros) Plant from which ancient

peoples manufactured paper. Papyrus plants stand around twelve
feet tall with a stem as thick as a person's wrist. The stems were cut in
one-foot sections, then sliced lengthwise in thin strips. Two layers of
these slices were placed on top of each other-with the grain of
each piece running perpendicular to the one beneath it-then
beaten together and dried to form paper.
vellum (from latin word meaning "pelt") Skin of an animal-usually

a calf, sheep or goat-used as a writing surface after being soaked in
water, saturated with lime, scraped and dried under tension. Also
known as parchment, though vellum is technically a piece of parch­
ment of superior quality.

ever directly contradicts other passages. Yet, when someone asks,
Does everything in Scripture and in the biblical manuscripts agree
word-for-word? that person is asking the wrong question. The an­
swer to that question will always be a resounding no .
Instead, the question should be, Though they may have been im­
perfectly copied at times and though different writers may have de­
scribed the same events in different ways, do the biblical texts that
are available to us provide a sufficient testimony for us to understand
God's inspired truth?
In other words-supposing that God did inspire the original New
Testament writings and that he protected those writings from error-

Tru t h A b o u t " T h e Origi n a l s T h a t Ma l l e r "

33

are the available copies of the New Testament manuscripts suffi­
ciently accurate for us to grasp the truth that God intended in the first
century? I believe that the answer to this question is yes.
The ancient manuscripts were not copied perfectly. Yet they were
copied with enough accuracy for us to comprehend what the original
authors intended .4 But, if Ehrman's Misquoting jesus had been the
only book I had read on this subject, I might have reached a radically
different conclusion.
To the casual reader, Misquoting jesus could imply that the early
copyists of the New Testament were careless and lacking in literary
skills. What's more, these scribes were prone to making purposeful
changes in the text for purely theological reasons. After considering
Ehrman's oft-repeated reminder that "there are more differences

T H I N K I T O UT

What do you bel i eve about the New Testament? Is the N ew Testa­
ment i nerra nt? If so, what does inerrancy mean to you? In a journal
record you r own bel iefs about the New Testament.

among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testa­
ment ,"5 I would probably be left with the assumption that the texts
of the New Testament aren't all that reliable after all.
So which is it?
Have centuries of careless copying tainted the texts beyond recov­
ery? Or are the New Testament documents sufficiently reliable for us
to discover the truths that the original authors intended? Before an­
swering these questions, it's necessary for us to gain a foundational
understanding of how these texts were preserved in the first place. So,

34

M I S Q U O T I N G

T R U T H

the focus of this chapter will be to take a look at the ways in which
these documents were kept and copied among the earliest Christians.
FOLLOWING jESUS IN THE CHURCH'S FIRST CENTURIES

Suppose that you are a follower of jesus Christ at some point in the
church's first three centuries. (You'll be imagining this possibility sev­
eral times as you read this book so you might as well really get into
it: Find yourself a toga, a quill pen and a piece of papyrus, and learn
some impressive-sounding Greek and Latin phrases-like Sit vis vo­

biscum, which means, "May the Force be with you . ") You have chosen
to entrust your life to this deity who-according to the recollections
of some supposed eyewitnesses--died on a cross and rose from the
dead . Through baptism, you have publicly committed yourself to im­
itate jesus' life . Now, you earnestly desire to be more like jesus.
But how?
Without easy access to writings about jesus, how can you learn
what it means to follow jesus?
There are no Christian bookstores in the local marketplace. And,
even if you could purchase a scroll that contained some of]esus' teach­
ings, you probably wouldn't be able to read it. Between 85 and 90 per­
cent of people in the Roman Empire seem to have been illiterate. 6
How, then, can you learn more about jesus? Besides imitating the
lives of other believers, you would have learned about jesus from
written documents . But how, as an illiterate person, would you have
learned from these writings?
THE FIRST CHURCH LIBRARIES
It's important to recognize that the writings of the prophets and the
apostles were so important to early Christians that, long before they
possessed buildings, they maintained a church library of sorts. Dur-

T ru t h A b o u t " T h e O rigi n a l s Th a t M a t t e r "

35

K N OW M O R E

By A.D. 180, even the Roman authorities knew how and where Chris­
tians preserved their writings. Stand i ng trial i n North Africa duri ng a
time of persecution, a Christian named Speratus was asked, "What
books do you keep in you r book-chest?" To this, Speratus replied,
"Our books and the letters of Pau l, a just man."7 Moments later, Sper­
atus and eleven fel low bel ievers were beheaded for their faith.

ing the first century A . D . , S the jewish Scriptures as well as the writings
of the apostles circulated as scrolls-as strips of parchment or papy­
rus, rolled around a stick.
Your congregation would have kept these scrolls in an armarion or
"book-chest. "9 Similar book-chests were already common fixtures in
Jewish synagogues, where they were called the 'aron ("chest" or
"shrine") ,10 and perhaps in the homes of wealthy Romans. Your
church's chest would probably have remained in the home where
your church most often gathered. In this book-chest--equipped with
specially niched shelves to hold documents securely1 1-sacred writ­
ings were organized and preserved for future generations of believ­
ers. It is possible, though not certain, that book titles were written on
small scraps of parchment or papyrus and sewn along the edges of
these documents. 1 2
In the late first century A . D . , Christians still preserved their writ­
ings in book-chests, but these writings began to take a new form:
Stacks of papyri were folded and bound to form a codex, the ancestor
of the modern book. 13 Codices-that's the plural form of codex­
were cheaper and more portable than scrolls. Partly because
churches owned no buildings and sometimes needed to move their

36

M I S Q U O T I N G

T R U T H

meeting places , the codex quickly became a popular choice for copy­
ing the earliest Christian writings. 14
By the mid-second century, your church's book-chest could have
included a few codices that other congregations didn't possess-per­
haps a letter to the Hebrews, two letters from Peter instead of one, or
a series of visions known as The Shepherd of Hennas. Yet most of the
codices in your book-chest would be the same ones that other Chris­
tian communities used. There would have been a copy of the Septu­
agint-the Greek translation of the jewish Scriptures-as well as

L O O K IT UP
Septuagint

(from Latin, septuaginta, "seventy") Greek translation of

the Jewish Scriptu res, completed between the third and the first cen­
tury B.c. The desi gnation Septuagi nt stems from a spurious legend that
seventy-accord in g to some versions of the story, seventy-two­
scholars worked separately to translate the Septua gint and that, after
seventy-two days, all the scholars emerged with identical translations.

twenty or so undisputed writings that could be connected to apos­
tolic eyewitnesses of the resurrected jesus.
Thirteen letters from Paul would likely have been among the old­
est copies in your cabinet, then the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke
and john, and then perhaps a letter from the apostle Peter and at
least one letter from john . 1 5 When your congregation gathered each
week, one of the literate believers would have read passages from the
jewish Scriptures-primarily from the prophets since Christians be­
lieved these writings pointed most clearly to jesus-and from the
writings that were connected to the apostles. 16

Tru t h A b o u t " T h e O r i gi n a l s T h a t M a t t e r "

37

But where would the writings in your church's book-chest have
come from? Most likely, none of these codices would have come di­
rectly from Paul or Matthew, Peter or john! Your church's codices

K N OW M O R E

What happened to the autographs of the New Testament texts?
Around A.D. 200, Tertullian of Carthage cla i med that the chu rches of
Cori nth, Ph i l i pp i, Thessalon ica, Ephesus and Rome stil l possessed
Pau l's original letters.17 1 n time, the autographs became worn, so they
were replaced and d iscarded.18

would have been copies, and these copies would have been passed to
your congregation from copyists or scribes.
The first Christian copyists were, it seems, simply Christians who
were capable of writing. Some of them may have copied scrolls in the
jewish synagogues before they became believers; others may have re­
produced Roman legal documents. 19 At some point-probably in the
second centu if 0-churches in major cities established official
groups of copyists to duplicate the Christian Scriptures. And, so, the
accuracy of the New Testament documents depended on hundreds
of anonymous copyists-men and women whose names you will
probably never know.
This, of course , brings up some difficult questions-questions
that deserve to be answered: How scrupulous were these copyists?
How seriously did they take the crucial task of copying the words of
Scripture? And how skilled were they in the first place? Those are the
questions that will form the framework for our study in the next
chapter, "Truth About the Copyists. "

38

M I S Q U O T I N G

T R U T H

K N OW M O R E

At least two descri ptions of early Christian worship have survived­
one from a Roman persecutor of Christians named Pliny the Younger
and another from a defender of Christianity named Justin.21
They meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a
hymn to Christ as to a deity. They bind themselves by oath, . . .
not to com mit fraud, theft, or adultery, nor to fa lsify their trust,
nor to refu se to retu rn a trust when cal led upon to do so. When
this is fi nished, it is their custom to dismiss and to assemble
aga i n to parta ke of food-ordi nary and i n nocent food. (Pliny)
On the day ca lled Sunday, all who l ive in cities or in the country
gather together to one place, and The Reminisces of the Apos­
tles or the prophets' writi ngs a re read, as long as time permits.
When the reader has ceased, the person presid ing verbal ly in­
structs, and encourages the imitation of these good thi ngs. We
a l l rise and pray; when our prayer is ended, bread and wine
and water a re brought, and the person presiding offers prayers
and thanksgivi ngs . . . and the people say, "Amen." There is a
distri bution to each person, and they participate i n the food
over which thanks have been given. A portion is sent by the
deacons to those that are absent. Those that a re well-to-do and
wil l i ng give . . . [to hel p] the orphans and widows, the ill and
those i n need. (Ju stin)

2

T RUTH ABOUT THE COPYI STS

Christianity . . . is a textually oriented religion whose
texts have been changed, surviving only in copies that
vary from one another, sometimes in highly signifi­
cant ways.
BA RT D. E H R M A N

In Misquoting jesus,

Ehrman makes the point that, in the ancient
world, some professional copyists may have been barely literate . In
fact, in a court case in Egypt, one copyist declared that another copy­
ist was literate simply because the other copyist was capable of sign­
ing his own name! 1 To complicate matters further, Ehrman brings up
some ancient charges against the Christians from the pagan writer
Celsus. Here's what Celsus had to say about the Christian Gospels:
Some believers, as though from a drinking bout, go so far as to
oppose themselves and alter the original text of the Gospel
three or four or even several times, and they change its charac­
ter to enable them to deny difficulties in face of criticism.
So how sloppy were these early Christian copyists? And did they­
as Celsus seems to suggest-purposely change their sacred texts to
deny difficulties about their faith?

40

M I S Q U O T I N G

T R U T H

In the first place, Ehrman's rendering of the text from Celsus is a
bit confusing. Here's an alternate version of this text that captures
Celsus' intent with a bit more accuracy:
Some believers, like persons who lay violent hands on them­
selves in drunken rage, have corrupted the Gospel from its orig­
inal wholeness, into threefold, fourfold, and manifold editions,
and have reworked it so that they can answer objections. 2
Ehrman views this quotation as evidence of "poor copying prac­
tices among Christians. "3 Viewed in its context, though, the quota­
tion from Celsus has little to do with variations among New Testa­
ment texts. Celsus' reference to "three or four" most likely refers to
the fact that the Christian Scriptures included not one account of
jesus' life but "three or four"-the writings known today as Matthew,
Mark, Luke and john.
If this was the case , Celsus may have wrongly assumed that, at one
point, there had been a single account of the ministry of jesus and
that Christians had altered this account until three or four distinct
Gospels were in circulation. If so, what Celsus missed in his charge
was the fact that the New Testament Gospels are not competing de­
scriptions of the life of jesus. The Gospels are complementary ac­
counts, each one conveying the same story but with a slightly differ­
ent perspective of jesus.
And yet, Ehrman's primary point still stands: It is clear from many
ancient sources that the New Testament writings were not copied per­
fectly. A Christian leader named Origen of Alexandria complained in
the third century about how carelessly some copyists had duplicated
the Scriptures. While preparing his commentary on the Gospel of
Matthew, Origen fumed:

T r u t h A b o u t t h e C o py i s t s

41

The differences between the manuscripts have become great, ei­
ther through the negligence of some copyists or through the
perverse audacity of others; they either neglect to check over
what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they
make additions or deletions as they please.4
Origen's comment does not represent a scientific analysis of the sta­
tus of New Testament manuscripts in the early third century; it is an
exclamatory side-note , evidently uttered in a moment of frustration.
But variations obviously did exist among the manuscripts. From
the comments of Origen and others, it's clear that the New Testament
texts were not being copied perfectly-and that not all changes were
accidental.
Since the copyists were fallible human beings, the presence of
these differences shouldn't surprise us. The copyists were just as
prone to imperfect attention spans, poor eyesight, fatigue and temp­
tations to make unneeded changes as you or I. Occasionally, copyists
did change or add words on purpose , usually to clarify something
that seemed vague to them. But these changes resulted in more con­
fusion by introducing disagreements between the various texts. This
is probably why the closing chapter of the Revelation includes a
warning to copyists:
I testify to all the ones hearing the words of the prophecy of this
book: If anyone adds upon them, God will add upon that per­
son the plagues written in this book; if anyone takes away from
the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that
person's portion from the tree of life and out of the holy city
written in this book. (Revelation 2 2 : 1 8- 19)5
The author of Revelation-believing that this book was a direct

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T R U T H

revelation from God-was cautioning future copyists not to intro­
duce changes into this document.
Despite such warnings, copyists did introduce changes-some­
times intentionally, most often unintentionally. In fact , as Ehrman
points out, the 5 , 700 or so New Testament manuscripts that are
available to us may differ from one another in as many as 400,000
places-and there are only 138,000 or so words in the Greek New
Testament in the first place ! 6
These copyists were also dealing with scriptio continua-texts that
included no punctuation, no spaces and no distinction between up­
percase and lowercase letters. (Which provides the context for my fa­
vorite quotation from Misquotingjesus: "This kind of continuous writ­
ing . . . could make it difficult at times to read, let alone understand,
a text. . . . What would it mean to say lastnightisawabundanceon­
thetable? Was this a normal or supernormal event?" The answer
would depend, I suppose, on whether Ehrman is thinking of "abun­
dance" or "a bun dance"-and what sort of buns he had in mind!)7
No chapter or verse designations existed either. In fact, three centu­
ries would pass before anyone added such divisions to the texts; even
then, the chapters and verses would not become standardized for an­
other thousand years.
At this point, it may seem as if centuries of careless copying have
tainted the New Testament texts beyond recovery. After all, if there
are more differences among the manuscripts than there are words in
the New Testament, doesn't that mean that recovering the original
words of Paul and the other apostles is a hopeless fantasy? If that's
how you feel, don't give up yet! There are still some truths that we
haven't explored-three facts that, from my perspective , Ehrman's
writings downplay. 8
(l) First, the vast majority of the changes in the New Testament

T r u t h A b o u t t h e C o py i s t s

43

documents are not even noticeable when the text is translated into
other languages. (2) Whats more, its almost always possible­
through a discipline known as textual criticism-to compare manu­
scripts and to discover where and when changes were made. (3) Per­
haps most important, the copyists were more concerned with pre­
serving the words of Scripture than with promoting their own
theological agendas.
ARE THE CHANGES SIGNIFICANT?

In the first place, Misquoting jesus grossly overestimates the signifi­
cance of the differences between the manuscripts. Ehrman's estimate
of 400,000 variants among the New Testament manuscripts may be
numerically correct-but what Ehrman doesn't clearly communicate
to his readers is the insignificance of the vast majority of these variants.
Most of these 400,000 variations stem from differences in spelling,
word order, or the relationships between nouns and definite arti­
cles-variants that are easily recognizable and, in most cases, virtu­
ally unnoticeable in translations! For example, the Greek words for
"we" (hemeis) and the plural "you" (hymeis) look very similar, and
copyists frequently confused them. But does it ultimately matter
whether "you . . . are children of promise" or "we . . . are children of
promise" (Galatians 4:28)?
In other cases, a text literally translated from Greek might have a
definite article before the noun. In some manuscripts ofJohn 3 : 3 , for
example, the verse-translated very literally-begins, "Answered,
the jesus and said to him . . . " In other Greek manuscripts of the same
verse, the definite article is missing. But, since English never places

the in front of a proper noun anyway, this difference isn't even observ­
able in any English translation! Regardless of the presence or absence
of the article, the clause is translated into English as, 'jesus answered

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T RU T H

and said to him" or some similar wording. In the end, more than 99
percent of the 400 ,000 differences fall into this category of virtually
unnoticeable variants!9
Of the remaining 1 percent or so of variants, only a few have any
significance for interpreting the biblical text. Most important, none of
the differences affects any central element of the Christian faith. Yet
Ehrman continues to declare in Misquoting]esus and in radio and tele­
vision interviews, "There are lots of significant changes"10-a claim
that the manuscript evidence simply does not support.
TEXTUAL CRITICISM 1 0 1

The science of textual criticism is not-despite the way the name
strikes our ears--concerned with criticizing the biblical text. In this
context, criticism means "analysis" or "close investigation." The task
of the textual critic is to look closely at copies of ancient documents
and to determine which copy is closest to the original document.
Here's what textual criticism assumes: It's impossible for all the copy­
ists to have made the same mistake at the same time. In other words,
since changes creep into the manuscripts one at a time in different
times and places, it is possible to compare several manuscripts to dis­
cover when and where the error occurred. The textual critic can then,
in most cases, figure out the original wording of the text.
Let's look at a simple example of this process. In most Greek
manuscripts john 1 : 6 reads something like this: "There was a man,
having been sent from God , whose name was john." But, in a
manuscript known as Codex Bezae or simply as D, the text reads,
"There was a man, having been sent from the Lord, whose name
was john . "
Like most differences between manuscripts, this variant doesn't af­
fect the meaning of the text. Still, it's important for scholars and

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T r u t h A b o u t t h e C o py i s t s

translators to determine which words appeared in the original text of
the Gospel of john. So, how do they know which reading is closest
to the original?
Let's look at a few manuscripts and decide for ourselves!
Codex Bezae is a vellum codex that includes not only Greek text
but also Latin. Together, the style of writing, the use of vellum instead
of papyrus, and the presence of Greek and Latin in the text suggest
that Codex Bezae-the manuscript that reads "sent from the Lord ­
was copied around A.D. 500. Codex Bezae also seems to have origi­
"

nated in the region of Europe now known as France.
The two primary manuscripts that agree on the other reading­
"sent from God" instead of "sent from the Lord"-are a vellum codex

L O O K I T UP
u ncial

(from Lati n term for t he width of a pri nted character t hat oc­

cupies one-twelfth of a l i ne) Style of writing popular from the third
until the eighth century A.D. Many i mportant manuscri pts of the New
Testament- includ i ng Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus­
were written i n uncial letters.

known as Codex Sinaiticus and a papyrus codex that scholars have
dubbed �66. Codex Sinaiticus was copied around A. D . 3 30. �66
probably dates from the late second century A.D. , a century or less
from the time when most scholars believe the Gospel of john was
originally written! Codex Sinaiticus and �66 also seem to have been
copied in two different areas of Egypt.
So-from what you've learned in the previous paragraphs­
which words do you think john originally wrote? "Sent from God"

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T R U T H

or "sent from the Lord"? Make your choice before proceeding to the
next paragraph !
Given the agreement between Codex Sinaiticus and �66-manu­
scripts that were copied in two different places, more than a century
apart-and the fact that these two codices are centuries older than
Codex Bezae, nearly every textual critic has concluded that john 1:6
originally read "sent from God." At some point, probably somewhere
in Europe in the fifth century, a tired or careless scribe wrote "Lord"
(Greek, kyriou) when the word should have been copied was "God"
(Greek, theou).
Now, I must admit to you that most textual issues are far more
complicated than the scenario I've presented here. Still, there are cer-

K N OW M O R E

Cod ices of New Testa ment manuscripts are often na med to connect
them to their place of d iscovery (Codex Si naiticus was d iscovered
near Mount Sina i ) or to thei r source (Codex Bezae was once the prop­
erty of Theodore Beza). These codices may a lso be given a letter des­
ignation, such as A or B or D.

tain principles that, with rare exceptions, allow textual critics to de­
termine the original form of the text. Ehrman is well aware of these
principles. (In fact, one of Ehrman$ former professors-Bruce M.
Metzger-is responsible for refining many of the most important
principles of textual criticism.) At one point in Misquotingjesus, Ehr­
man even acknowledges, "I continue to think that even if we cannot
be 100 percent certain about what we can attain to . . . , that it is at
least possible to get back to the oldest and earliest stage of the manu-

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T r u t h A b o u t t h e C o py i s t s

K N OW M O R E

Papyrus cod ices are usually designated with a � fol lowed by a num­
52
ber, such as � or �66• Someti mes other letters a re added to indi­
cate the source of a piece of papyrus. For example, P.Oxy. refers to
papyrus fragments d iscovered near Oxyrhynchus i n Egypt.

script tradition for each of the books of the New Testament. " 1 1 In an­
other place, he admits:
The more manuscripts one discovers , the more the variant
readings; but also the more the likelihood that somewhere
among those variant readings one will be able to uncover the
original text. Therefore, the thirty thousand variants uncovered
by [eighteenth-century textual critic john] Mill do not detract
from the integrity of the New Testament; they simply provide
the data scholars need to work on to establish the text, a text
that is more amply documented than any other in the ancient
world. 12
And yet it seems that Ehrman wants-in the words of one re­
viewer-"to have his text-critical cake and eat it, too." 1 3 Only a few
pages after affirming that it is possible to recover the most ancient
form of the manuscripts, Ehrman refers to Christianity as "a textually
oriented religion whose texts have been chartged. " 14 Despite admit­
ting that it is possible to recover the "oldest and earliest" manuscript
traditions, Ehrman finds space before the closing paragraphs of Mis­
quoting jesus to repeat his charge that, "given the circumstance that
[God] didn't preserve the words, the conclusion seemed inescapable
to me that he hadn't gone to the trouble of inspiring them. " 15 Yet Ehr-

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M I S Q U O T I N G

T R U T H

man remains well aware that textual critics can, in his words, "recon­
struct the oldest form of the words of the New Testament with rea­
sonable (though not 1 00 percent) accuracy."16
Textual criticism isn't a perfect science, but God has worked
through more than a few imperfect tools throughout history-Noah
and Abraham, Moses and Elijah, Esther and Mary Magdalene, Peter
and Paul, the author of the book that you're reading right now. Yet
Ehrman seems to expect God to work around humanity to preserve his
words, so that textual criticism wouldn't even be necessary. The pat­
tern throughout the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures reveals a differ­
ent pattern-the pattern of a God who works through humanity. Given
Gods penchant for revealing his glory through failure-prone imple­
ments of flesh and blood in the first place, whos to say that a process
such as textual criticism might not be precisely the pathway that God
has chosen to preserve and to restore the words of Scripture?
FOOL AND KNAVE! LEAVE THE OLD READING !

It is important, finally, to remember that the copyists were more con­
cerned with preserving the words of Scripture than with promoting
their own theological agendas. Despite his reservations about the ear­
liest Christian scribes, even Ehrman acknowledges this fact in Mis­
quoting]esus:
It is probably safe to say that the copying of early Christian texts
was by and large a "conservative" process. The scribes . . . were
intent on "conserving" the textual tradition they were passing on.
Their ultimate concern was not to modify the tradition, but to
preserve it for themselves and for those who would follow them.
Most scribes, no doubt, tried to do a faithful job in making sure
that the text they reproduced was the same text they inherited. 17

T r u t h A b o u t t h e C o py i s t s

49

In other words, early Christians wanted future generations to find
the same truth in the New Testament documents that the first gener­
ations of believers had experienced. So, their intent was to hand on
to their successors the same text that they received.
This is evident in the complaint from Origen of Alexandria that I
quoted earlier. Even though significant differences between manu­
scripts accounted for no more than 1 percent of the variants, Origen of

This image, discovered in the house of Paquius Proculus in the ru­
ins of Pompeii, depicts two methods of writing in the first century

A . D . Some writings were preserved in wooden tablets with wax­

coated panels; words were scratched into the wax using styluses
like the one in the woman's hand. Other writings were preserved in
scrolls, such as the one in the man's hand. In the later first century,
codices-ancestors of modern books-began to replace scrolls.

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T R U T H

Alexandria considered the differences he saw in his own copies of the
Gospels to be "great"! Why? He earnestly desired to see the oldest read­
ings preserved. As a result, even small changes in the text troubled him.
Most copyists seem to have regarded the text with the same rever­
ence that Origen displayed. When one copyist changed the wording
of a text in a fourth-century manuscript known as Codex Vaticanus,
a later copyist rewrote the original word and added this marginal
note: "Fool and knave ! Leave the old reading, don't change it! " 18 Cer­
tainly, copyists did alter the text from time to time-but the consis­
tency of the available manuscripts of the New Testament demon­
strates that these alterations were exceptions, not the rule .
So what about the supposed "significant" alterations that Ehrman
stresses so heavily in Misquoting jesus? Did copyists actually alter the

T H I N K I T O UT

Sir Frederic Kenyon, former director of the British Museum, once
commented concerni ng the Gospels, "The i nterval between the
dates of the original composition and the earliest extant evi dence
[is] so small as to be ne g l igible, and the last fou ndation for any doubt
that the Scriptures have come down to us substantia l ly as they were
written has now been removed."19

texts to strengthen scriptural support for their own theological agen­
das? If so, how does this affect our translations of the Bible today? In
chapters three and four, we'll look at most of the supposed "signifi­
cant" changes that Ehrman lists-as well as a handful that Ehrman
doesn't mention at all-and determine what those changes mean for
us today.

3

T RUTH ABOUT
"SIGNIFICANT C HANGE S "
IN T HE NEW TESTAM ENT

Once a scribe changes a text-whether accidentally or
intentionally-then those changes are permanent in
his manuscript (unless, of course, another scribe comes
along to correct the mistake). The next scribe who cop­
ies that manuscript copies those mistakes (thinking
they are what the text said), and he adds mistakes of
his own. . . . Mistakes multiply and get repeated; some­
times they get corrected and sometimes they get com­
pounded. And so it goes. For centuries.
BART D . E H RMAN

When I need to get information to several hundred people, I type
a document on my notebook computer. I then send the document to
a printer, walk across the hall from my office and place the original
document in the photocopy machine.
After I press the button that's marked "Start Copy," red lights begin
to flash and error messages appear, informing me that I've jammed
the copier. After opening the machine and contorting my torso into

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M I S Q U O T I N G

T R U T H

several less-than-dignified positions, the phantom jam remains a
menace. At this point, a secretary walks into the room and-some­
how being unable to overlook the fact that my head is inside the copy
machine while my posterior is protruding from a portion of the pho­
tocopier that's been designated for cardstock paper-rolls her eyes
and asks, "Did you break the copier again?"
I consider telling her that I was merely checking the ink level in
the copier. But I've tried this before, only to be informed that the new
copiers don't have ink in them. The technician that fixed the copier
last time it malfunctioned told me that the new copiers shoot laser
beams through a substance that looks suspiciously like gunpowder,
which is actually fuel for a thermonuclear warp-drive reactor . . . or
something like that.
I climb out of the copier, wipe the warp-drive fuel from my fore­
head and get out of the way. In a matter of seconds, the secretary has
dislodged the jammed scrap of paper, made the photocopies and re­
minded me to stay out of the copy room. For a church secretary, she
sure knows a lot about warp-drive reactors, let me tell you. I know
nothing about warp drives except what I've learned from Star Wars,
which is that warp drives eventually begin to work if you yell at
Chewbacca to bring you the hydrospanners. Unfortunately, nobody
in my office is named Chewbacca, and everyone seems a little embar­
rassed whenever I stand in front of the copier and scream, "Chewie,
bring me the hydrospanners!" This may be why I've been told to stay
out of the copy room.
And so, now, I do stay out of the copy room . . . most of the time.
That's how documents are created and copied in the twenty-first
century: A computer sends them to a printer; then, after having its
buttons punched, its platens unjammed and its warp-drive fuel re­
plenished , a copy machine spits out hundreds or even thousands of

T r u t h A b o u t " S ign ifi c a n t C h a nge s " i n t h e N e w T e s t a m e n t

53

K N OW M O R E

If possi ble, refer to a New Testament that includes extensive textual
notes as you read chapters three and four. I n such a text, you will find
notes that say, for example, "some ancient manuscripts omit this
verse," or "some ancient manuscripts add this phrase."

exact copies of the original document.
This is not, however, how documents were created or copied when
Jesus and Peter and Paul walked this planet's dusty paths. 1 Docu­
ments were , as we have seen, copied by hand. Because documents
were hand-copied, there have been thousands of changes in the
Greek manuscripts of the New Testament-as Ehrman has rightly
pointed out. Most of these alterations were accidental, and they have
no bearing on the texts' ultimate significance . Other changes were
deliberate, and the theological controversies faced by the copyists
motivated at least a few of these intentional alterations.
Up to this point, I find myself vigorously nodding in agreement
with Ehrman. From this point onward , though, the common ground
begins to fade . According to Ehrman,
Christianity . . . is a textually oriented religion whose texts have
been changed, surviving only in copies that vary from one an­
other, sometimes in highly significant ways. . . . It would be
wrong . . . to say-as people sometimes do-that the changes
in our text have no real bearing on what the texts mean or on
the theological conclusions that one draws from them . . . . In
some instances, the very meaning of the text is at stake . 2
Some of these changes are, Ehrman contends, so significant that they

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T R U T H

K N OW M O R E

So how do New Testa ment scholars choose the read i ng of a text that
most probably represents the original writi ng, especia l ly when there
are several possibil ities? Here are basic pri nci ples that most textual
critics fol low:
1.

Look beyond the man uscri pt (a) at which reading is oldest, (b) at
which reading is supported by texts that were separated by the far·
thest distance and

(c) to which textual family the manuscript belongs.

Look within the manuscript for which read i ng is more probable

2.

based on (a) what a copyist wou ld be most l i kely to chan ge, (b)
which possible rea d i ng is shortest, (c) which reading might have
been an attempt to harmonize one text with anot her a nd (d) what
d ifficult words a copyist m ight have replaced with simpler ones.
3.

Look at other writin�s by the same origi nal author to see which
rea d i ng is most similar to the author's other writi ngs.

"affect the interpretation of an entire book of the New Testament. " 3
From my perspective , a

significant alteration would b e one that re­

quires Christians either to rethink a vital belief about Jesus Christ­
a belief that we might find in the Apostles' Creed , for example-or to
doubt the historical accuracy of the New Testament documents . Yet ,
when

I look a t the changes i n the Greek manuscripts of the New Tes­

tament , I find

no "highly significant" alterations .

THE SEARCH FOR SIGNIFICANT CHANGES
In almost every instance , it is possible-as Ehrman himself admits­
to "reconstruct the oldest form of the words of the New Testament

T r u t h A b o u t " S i g n ifi c a n t C h a n g e s " i n t h e N e w T e s t a m e n t

55

with reasonable (though not 1 00 percent) accuracy," recovering "the

oldest and earliest stage of the manuscript tradition for each of the
books of the New Testament . "4
But what about the times when it isn't possible to be 100 percent
certain about the original form of the text?
It is at this point that Ehrman finds changes that are supposedly
so significant that they affect entire books of the Bible . And, it is at
this point that I must respectfully disagree with Ehrman. Heres what

I find as I look at the textual evidence : In every case in which two or
more options remain possible, every possible option simply reinforces
truths that are already clearly present in the writings of that particular au­

thor and in the New Testament as a whole; there is no point at which any
of the possible options would require readers to rethink an essential belief
about jesus or to doubt the historical integrity of the New Testament. Sim­
ply put, the differences are not "highly significant. " This is the crucial
point where , from my perspective, the evidence does not support
Ehrman's conclusions.
With this in mind, let's look at two dozen or so key places where
New Testament manuscripts disagree . With a few possible excep­
tions, these are not places where a copyist simply misheard or mis­
read a text. These are texts that, for one reason or another, one or
more ancient copyists changed. So, grab a translation of the Bible that
includes notes about textual differences, and look carefully at the
possibilities. Weigh each possibility carefully, and decide for yourself
whether the changes are really "highly significant" after all.
THE CASE OF OVER-ZEALOUS COPYISTS
Many noticeable changes in the New Testament documents stem
from over-zealous copyists who felt it was necessary to clarify con­
cepts that the texts already taught. For example, in nearly all New

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T R U T H

Testament manuscripts, Matthew 1 : 1 6 reads something like this: "Ja­
cob was father of Joseph husband of Mary, out of whom Jesus-the
one who is called the Messiah-was born." But, at some point, a
copyist wanted to make certain readers understood that Jesus was
virgin-born, so the scribe changed the verse to read, "jacob was father
of Joseph, to whom was betrothed the virgin Mary from whom
Jesus-the one who is called the Messiah-was born. "
Though the copyist's actions weren't necessarily commendable,
this change doesn't affect anyone's understanding of the text. The re­
mainder of this chapter already affirms that Mary was a virgin when
Jesus was conceived (Matthew 1 : 1 8-25) , so the copyist simply em­
phasized a truth that was already clear in the text.
Other examples of this sort of change may be found in other texts:
In Matthew 1 7 : 1 2- 1 3 , a copyist rearranged a couple of words to
make certain the reader recognizes that Jesus, not John the Baptist,
was "the Son of Man." In Luke 2 : 3 3 , a scribe seems to have skipped
the words "his father" to make certain the readers remember that­
though Joseph was Jesus' legal father-Joseph was not Jesus' biolog­
ical father. That assertion is, however, already clear in other passages
in this Gospel (Luke 1 : 26-38 ; 2 : 5) .
Another example o f this sort o f alteration can b e found in 1 Tim­
othy 3 : 1 6 . A copyist of this text changed the word "who" to
"God"-a change that may have been a copying error, since only a
single minute line distinguishes the abbreviation for God (9C)
from the Greek word that's translated "who" (OC) . It's also possible ,
though, that a well-meaning copyist wanted to emphasize the deity
of Jesus Christ. This change was made at a time when the letters at­
tributed to Paul-epistles that described Jesus as being, in some
sense , divine (Philippians 2 : 6 ; Colossians 1 : 1 5)-had already cir­
culated as a complete collection for at least a couple of centuries.

T r u t h A b o u t " S ig n ifi c a n t C h a nge s " i n t h e N e w T e s t a m e n t

57

such, the truth was already present in the copyist's texts. Once
again, an over-zealous copyist was merely highlighting a truth that

As

other texts already taught.
You can find two more clauses of this sort in Acts 8:37. Then
again, depending on which translation you're using, you may not be
able to find Acts 8 : 3 7, which is precisely the point. If you read the
book of Acts as a whole, its clear that whenever someone was bap­
tized that person also committed his or her life by faith to jesus Christ
(see Acts 2 : 38-4 1 ; 8 : 1 2 ; 9 : 1 7-20; 1 6 : 1 4- 1 5 , 30-33; 18:8) . But, in the
most ancient and most reliable versions of Acts 8, the personal faith­
commitment of one individual-a eunuch from Ethiopia-isn't par­
ticularly clear. Heres how the original version of the encounter be­
tween Philip and the eunuch ends:
The eunuch exclaimed: "Look! Water! What prevents me from
being baptized?" He commanded the chariot to stop, and they
both went down into the water-Philip and the eunuch-and
he baptized him.
At some point, a copyist of this text seems to have been afraid that
someone might think the eunuch received baptism without believing
in jesus. So, the scribe added the sentences that became Acts 8 : 3 7 :
"Philip said , 'If you are trusting with your whole heart, you may:' He
replied, 'I trust jesus Christ, God's Son. "' A beautifully rendered text,
to be sure-but not one that appeared in the original manuscript of
the Acts of the Apostles. Again, the copyist made explicit in a specific
text what was already implicit in the book as a whole.
Its possible that the same sort of change occurred in john 1 : 1 8 .
This verse may have originally described jesus a s "the one and only
Son." Or the text might have read "the one and only God"-the
manuscript witnesses to these two readings are, in my opinion,

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T R U T H

evenly divided. Here's what is most important, though: Both wordings
affirm truths that are clearly expressed throughout johns Gospel.
In support of "one and only God," John 20:28 unambiguously
identifies Jesus as God, and the opening verses of John's Gospel also
imply that Jesus was uniquely divine. 5 In support of "one and only
Son," the familiar words of John 3 : 1 6 already refer to Jesus as "the
only begotten Son" or "the one and only Son." Both readings of John
1 : 1 8 fit the larger context of the Gospel According to John. Even

though authentic differences do exist among the manuscripts, neither
possibility contradicts John's Gospel or the remainder of the New
Testament, and the differences do not call into question any crucial
aspect of Christian faith. If some scribe did change "one and only
Son" to "one and only God," the scribe simply emphasized a truth
that was already present in John's Gospel.
Here's another example, found in Hebrews 2 : 9 . Did Jesus die
"apart from God" (choris theou) or "by God's grace" (chariti
theou) ? Bart Ehrman believes that the author of Hebrews originally

wrote choris theou

-

"apart from God. " The manuscript evidence

for this wording is weak, but it is one possible reading of the text.
And yet, either wording fits the larger context of Hebrews. Accord­
ing to Hebrews 1 3 : 1 1 - 1 3 , Jesus died excluded from the fellowship
of God's people . In light of this text-as well as Mark 1 5 : 34 , which
would have been in circulation when Hebrews was written-it
would also have made sense to say that Jesus died separated from
fellowship with God the Father ("apart from God") . At the same
time, according to Hebrews 1 3 : 9 , it is by God's grace that God's
people can endure persecution . So, the more prominent reading­
"by God's grace"-also makes sense . Neither possibility contra­
dicts anything in the letter to the Hebrews or in the New Testament
as a whole . 6

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59

THE CASE OF ADDING SCRIPTURE TO SCRIPTURE

Sometimes copyists incorporated other well-known Scriptures into
certain biblical texts. Here's a simple example from some scribes who
were copying texts that had been expanded in the context of Chris­
tian worship: At some point in the late first or early second century,
some Christians-probably in Syria-added this paraphrased snip­
pet from 1 Chronicles 29: 1 1 to their recitations of the Lord's Prayer:
"For yours is the kingdom and power and glory forever. Amen."
Eventually, this addition became s o familiar that a copyist included it
at the end of Matthew 6 : 1 3 when copying his Gospel. Still later, other
copyists expanded the version of the Lord's Prayer that's found in
Luke 1 1 to fit the more familiar version in Matthew's Gospel. One
text of Scripture was added to another text.
Similarly, in John 1 9 , the author quotes Psalm 2 2 : 1 8 as a prophecy
of the soldiers gambling for Jesus' clothing: "This fulfilled the Scrip­
ture , They parted my clothes among themselves, and upon my cloth­
ing they cast lots"' Qohn 1 9 : 24) . This quotation eventually worked
its way into Matthew's description of the crucifixion (Matthew
27:35). Again, a copyist used one Scripture to expand another Scrip­

ture. An annoyance for textual critics and biblical scholars? Some­
what. But are such changes so significant that they alter some aspect
of Christian faith? No.
In Luke's description of the baptism of Jesus, a few late manu­
scripts replace the familiar words from heaven found in other Gos­
pels-"In you, I am well-pleased"-with this quotation from Psalm
2 : 7 : 'Today, I have begotten you" (Luke 3 : 22 ) . Ehrman makes the

case that the quotation from the Psalms represents the Gospel's orig­
inal wording. 7 I don't find Ehrman's case to be compelling at this
point. 8 Yet, even if the quotation from the psalms was the original
wording, both the change and the original wording affirm truths

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M I S QU O T I N G

T R U T H

about jesus Christ that appear throughout the New Testament (see
Matthew 3 : 1 7; Mark 1 : 1 1 ; Acts 1 3 :33; Hebrews 1 : 5 ; 5 : 5 ) .
In Matthew 2 7 , another example of this sort of alteration appears:
In Matthew 2 7 : 34, some later manuscripts have "they gave him vin­
egar to drink" in place of "they gave him wine to drink." Ehrman por­
trays this change as a possible attempt to avoid inconsistency be­
tween this text and Matthew 26:29, where jesus says, "I will
certainly not drink from this fruit that comes from the vine until that
day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom." Though
possible , this scenario is quite unlikely. After all, in the first century,
vinegar and wine were both products of "fruit that comes from the
vine."9 (When jesus promised not to drink the fruit of the vine again
until the consummation of God's kingdom, he was most likely
pointing his apostles' attention to the banquet that jews believed
would mark the beginning of the Messiah's reign.10) Why, then, did
a copyist change the text? Most likely because the copyist remem­
bered a passage from the Psalms that reads, "For my thirst they gave
me vinegar" (Psalm 69 : 2 1 ) .
Since scribes frequently copied all four New Testament Gospels
consecutively, it's not surprising that copyists occasionally changed the
wording of one Gospel to fit the others. For example, a few manu­
scripts of Mark 6:3 have "carpenters son" in place of "carpenter." De­
spite Ehrmans attempts to ascribe other intentions to some hapless
scribe, its most probable that the copyist simply adapted Mark 6:3 to
match the parallel passage in Matthew 1 3 : 5 5 . This change caused
some confusion among early Christian theologians, including Origen
of Alexandria. 1 1 But, again, these modifications are easily discovered,
and I do not know any cardinal doctrine of Christian faith that depends
on whether jesus was a carpenter or a carpenter's son, especially in a cul­
ture in which sons typically took up the same trade as their fathers.

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61

THE CASE OF COPYISTS WHO KNEW TOO MUCH
In other cases, copyists seem to have felt that the biblical text didn't

provide all the information that readers needed. So, copyists sup­
plemented the text not with other Scriptures but with their own
knowledge . For example, many late manuscripts add a couple of
clauses around john 5 : 3-4 to explain why so many physically dis­
advantaged persons had gathered around the pool known as Beth­
zatha or Beth-saida:
They were waiting for the water to move, because an angel from
the Lord went down at certain times into the pool and stirred
the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water
was healed of any disease.
None of the most ancient Greek manuscripts include these words,
although the addition probably does preserve a widespread belief
about the Pool of Beth-zatha. Otherwise, the paralyzed man's words
in john 5 : 7 wouldn't make any sense: "Lord," the paralytic pleads, "I
have no person in order that someone might throw me into the pool
when the water is stirred." At some point-perhaps in an area far
from jerusalem, where this odd notion wasn't widely understood-a
knowledgeable scribe felt that readers needed an explanation of this
custom.
Similarly, a copyist of Marks Gospel seems to have recognized that
the prophetic quotation in the opening verses of the Gospel Accord­
ing to Mark comes not only from Isaiah 40: 3 but also from Malachi
3: l with a partial phrase thrown in from Exodus 23:20. Ehrman de­
picts this as an error in Mark's Gospel. But Isaiah is the most promi­
nent prophet in the mix, and it was a common practice to cite com­
bined quotations by the most prominent source. 1 2 Still, some later
scribe may have seen a potential problem here, as Ehrman does. As a

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M I S Q U O T I N G

T R U T H

result, this copyist changed the opening words of Mark 1 :2 from "just
as it has been written in Isaiah the prophet" to "just as it has been writ­
ten in the prophets. "
Other scribal additions of this sort include traditions that were not
part of the original document but that may still represent authentic
accounts of what happened. For example, in some manuscripts of
Luke's Gospel, Luke 23:34 is missing. While the omission doesn't call
into question any aspect of Christian faith, these words of Jesus from
the cross-"Father, forgive them; they do not know what they're do­
ing"-have had a profound effect on many people. Ehrman argues
that this verse was originally present in Luke's Gospel but that anti­
Jewish Christians cut it out. Even he must admit, though, that the
earliest and best manuscripts don'tinclude this particular passage . It's
far more likely that a later scribe added this verse to the Gospel Ac­
cording to Luke.
When it comes to Luke 23:34-as well as several other expansions
in the Gospels-it appears that the copyist incorporated a familiar
tradition that had already circulated among the churches for several
decades. These traditions may have been reliable, but they were not
written in the original Gospel manuscripts. Personally, I suspect that
Jesus did say from the cross, "Father, forgive them; they do not know
what they're doing"; these words were simply not present in the first
edition of Luke's Gospel.
Two other examples can be found elsewhere in this Gospel, in
Luke 22:43-44 and 24: 1 2 . In Luke 22:43-44, some later texts de­
scribe an angel comfortingJesus as the suffering Messiah's sweat min­
gles with bloodY In Luke 24: 1 2 , some manuscripts add a brief ac­
count of Simon Peter's experience at the empty · tomb-one that
seems to draw from the same tradition as John 2 1 :3- 10. Reliable tra­
ditions? Very possibly Part of Luke's original Gospel? Probably not.

T r u t h A b o u t " S i g n ifi c a n t C h a ng e s " i n t h e N e w T e s t a m e n t

63

In this tenth-century minuscule manuscript of Mark's Gospel, known as

669 , "as it is written in Isaiah the prophet" has been changed to "as it
is written in the prophets"

(Mark

1:2). (Photograph courtesy of

CSNT M.org.)

T here are also some longer examples of these sorts of additions to
the New Testament . One of the most famous is the beloved account
of the woman caught in adultery Qohn 7 : 53-8 : 1 1 ) -a poignant and
profound story, to be sure , but not part of John's original Gospel. It's
missing completely from early manuscripts such as the third-century
papyri

�66

and

�75 ,

Even when this story

as well as the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus codices.

does appear in ancient manuscripts, its location

changes. Sometimes it's found after john 7 : 36 ; other times it's at the

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M I S Q U O T I N G

T R U T H

end of John's Gospel. Once, the story even shows up in the Gospel
According to Luke, and-from the writings of a fourth-century Chris­
tian named Eusebius of Caesarea-it seems that the story also ap­
peared in a now-lost Gospel known as Gospel to the Hebrews. 1 4
Mark 16 : 9-20 might be another example. The most ancient manu­
scripts of Mark's Gospel end with this awkward clause: "Nothing to
anyone did they say, for they were fearing" (Mark 16:8b). Apparently,
this abrupt ending bothered more than one scribe. 15 To this ending,
a few texts from the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries A.D. add a
pithy postscript: 16

All that they were told, they reported briefly to Peter and those
around him. After these things, Jesus sent out by means of
them, from east to west, the sacred and immortal message of
salvation unto the ages.
Other manuscripts add the verses that we know as Mark 16:9-20.
Again, these verses probably weren't in Mark's original Gospel, but
they do represent an authentic tradition about Jesus' resurrection.
When this is taken into consideration, it becomes clear-in the
words of Bruce Metzger-"that the New Testament contains not four
but five evangelic accounts of events subsequent to the Resurrection
of Christ. " 1 7
The verses added t o Mark 1 6 do seem at first to include some
strange teachings: "They will take hold of snakes, and, if they drink
something poisonous, it will not hurt them," the text declares (Mark
16: 18a) . Unless I miss my guess, these promises were never intended
as a divine calling to guzzle cyanide or juggle rattlesnakes. Their in­
tent was to illustrate in picturesque metaphors how God is able to
protect his people from any enemy. What's more, both promises are
also present in other biblical passages. A reference to protection from

T r u t h A b o u t " S i g n if i c a n t C h a n g e s " i n t h e N e w T e s t a m e n t

L O O K IT UP

Textual critics have developed several terms to describe the uni nten­
tional errors that copyists made as they copied the New Testament
documents:
homonymity (from G reek , homonymos,

"same name") Textual vari­

ant that seems to be the resu lt of mishearing one word as a nother
similar-soun d i ng word.
(from latin, permutare, "to change completely") Tex­

perm utation

tual va riant that seems to be the resu lt of fau lty eyesight.
(from Greek, "looki ng beside") Textual variant that

parablepsis

seems to be the result of a copyist uni ntentionally omitting or repeat­
i ng a word or series of words beca use of a ski p of the eye.18
dittography

(from G reek, dittos ["double"] + graphos ["writing"])

I ncidence of para blepsis t hat seems to be the result of a copyist
copying a word or series of words twice.
haplography

(from G reek, haplos ["single"] + graphos ["writi ng"])

I ncidence of parablepsis that seems to be the resu lt of a copyist skip­
ping a word or series of words.
homoloteleuton

or homoeoteleuton (from G reek, homoi ["l i ke"] +

telos ["endi ng"]) I nc idence of haplogra phy caused by the copyist's

eyes ski pping to a later word or phra se that ended in a similar way to
the word or phrase that the copyist was reproduci ng.
homoioardon

or

homoeoardon

(from Greek, homoi ["l i ke"] +

arche ["begi nni ng"]) I ncidence of haplography caused by the copy­

ist's eyes ski pping to a later word or phrase that began in a similar
way to the word or phra se that the copyist was reproducing.

65

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T R U T H

serpents is found in Luke's Gospel (Luke 1 0 : 1 9 ; compare Isaiah

1 1 :8) , and the promise of protection from poison echoes Psalm 69:
"They gave me poison for food, . . . I am lowly and in pain; let your
salvation, 0 God, protect me" (Psalm 69: 2 1 , 29). Again, none of the
additions alters Christian faith or practice in any significant way.

4

T RUTH ABOUT "MI SQUOTING JESUS"

Ehrman makes the provocative case that many of our
cherished biblical stories and widely held beliefs con­
cerning the divinity of]esus, the Trinity, and the divine
origins of the Bible itself stem from both intentional
and accidental alterations by scribes.
P R O M O T I O N A L C O V E R C O PY F R O M

M IS Q UO TING jES US

Not every intentional change in the New Testament texts is quite
as clear-cut as the ones I've listed so far. There are intentional changes
in the manuscripts that could affect the readers understanding of a
particular text. And still, none of them challenges any vital aspect of